the intangibles of books

My recent posts have been focusing on books that have been handed down from one generation to the next, books that allow us to see evidence of the social transactions of books and the links they forge between family members. But we wouldn’t be able to see that evidence if the books themselves weren’t in such good shape to begin with.

The photo above is of one of my favorite books, and I mean that in a very material sense, not a textual sense: I love this particular book because it was my father’s when he was a boy. I remember it sitting on his bookshelves in our house, and him telling me how fond he was of Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve never actually read Kidnapped. And I’m not going to be able to read this copy. It’s so fragile that the front cover came right off as I removed it from my bookshelf this afternoon. § continue reading

Montelyon’s sword

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the social lives of books and how they take on meaning through our uses of them. That’s come in part from the moving Yom Kippur service I was at and the use of a rescued Lithuanian Torah scroll. More on that, and how it has been making me think about the lives of books and readers, in a future post.

But for this post, a much smaller look at a book from our period and the social and emotional life it suggests. So: Emanuel Ford’s The famous historie of Mountelyon, Knight of the Oracle, and sonne to the renowned Presicles King of Assyria. The Folger’s copy of this book is, unsurprisingly given my recent theme, one that was owned by Frances Wolfreston, and it has her characteristic inscription on leaf A3r: “Frances Wolfreston her bowk.”


What I like about this particular book is that she seems to have given it to her son Francis, who also carefully inscribed it on the first leaf: “Francis Wolferston his Booke.” (You can see bleed-through from the other side, on which a later Wolferstan decendant has inscribed his name and has repeated the title of the book.)


In 1652, the year that Francis has dated his inscription, he would have been fourteen years old.
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not only Wolfrestons!

So my favorite Chaucer, as I’ve mentioned before, is inscribed by Frances Wolfreston and recorded as a gift to her from her mother-in-law Mary Wolfreston. And as we know from her will, discussed in my last post, Frances left her library to her third son with the instructions that it be made kept distinct from the family’s other collections and made available for borrowing by her other children. As a result, her books were passed on through generations of the Wolfreston family. Elsewhere in this book are the inscriptions of two later family members: “T. Wolfreston anno D[omi]no 1717” and “J. Wolfreston ejus liber anno D[omi]ni 1718.” The book itself is bound in an 18th-century reversed-calf binding that is inscribed on the front cover with “S. Wolfreston.” For me, that’s already a treasury of information about how this book was valued and passed on through a family.

But it gets better! § continue reading

Frances Wolfreston, book collector

Earlier this month I promised some more posts on Frances Wolfreston and her copy of Chaucer’s works that we have at the Folger. It’s one of my favorite books at the moment, so there will be lots more coming, but here’s some starting information about Wolfreston’s books. 

Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677) seems to have started collecting books after her marriage in 1631 to Francis Wolfreston (1612-1666)–or at least she started inscribing them after her marriage, since none of them appear with her maiden name, Frances Middlemore.* Nor are there any books inscribed by anyone else in the Wolfreston family prior to her marriage; in other words, she didn’t seem to sign books that were already in her husband’s collection, but built her own library of books.

Paul Morgan characterizes Wolfreston’s books as “the leisure reading of a literate lady in her country house.” They include plays and poems, but also jest-books and religious works.** Among the books bearing her signature are Heywood’s Rape of Lucrece, Lodge’s Wits Miserie, Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice, Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie, Catholic and Anglican catechisms, many of John Taylor’s poems, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Richard II. § continue reading

copy-editors redux

A few months ago, I blogged about copy-editors at newspapers, using Lawrence Downes’s lament for the declining trade as a prompt for thinking about how mistakes get corrected in print runs–early modern and modern. In that post, I noted that early modern printers made changes during the course of a print run without noting the fact or alerting readers to the fact that the book that they are buying might contain uncorrected errors. There was perhaps something similar, I thought, to the ways in which changes get made to online newspapers without any reflection of that change. A story will be reedited, reposted, and read without any acknowledgement of those changes. Any quirks in the earlier story that are stripped out are then invisible to later readers.

Last week, the Washington Post Ombudsman, Deborah Powell*, wrote her column about the disappearance of copy-editors from newspapers due to budget cutbacks. Her concern, expressed in her voice and in quotes from other newspaper professionals, is that the credibility of newspapers will suffer as a result. § continue reading

school books

Today’s post is in honor of all students returning to school everywhere–and in honor of all their teachers. For me, one of the strongest markers of a new school year is the buying of books (and, as a professor, the endless copying of excerpts of books to be put on reserve). For generations of early modern English school boys, the foundational text of their study was William Lily’s A short introduction of grammar generallie to be vsed. Compiled and set forth, for the bringyng vp of all those that intend to attaine the knovvlege of the Latin tongue. In1542 by Henry VIII made Lily’s Grammar the authorized book for studying Latin, and the work was reissued repeatedly for more than a century, and continued to influence subsequent Latin grammars well after that point. (Lily himself died in 1522, years before all this–what we–and those school boys–refer to as Lily’s Grammar is a text that, in fact, is only partially written by Lily himself.)


Reproduced above is the title page of from a 1557 edition.
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